Delegations from the United States and Russia have concluded eight hours of talks in Geneva as part of what is expected to be a week of high-stakes diplomacy prompted by Moscow's demands for a security deal and its threatening military buildup near Ukraine.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the head of the U.S. delegation, described her bilateral talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as "serious" and "businesslike."
Sherman described the meeting as talks, rather than negotiations, and said the United States did not go line by line through Russia's demands.
Sherman said the United States came to the meeting with a few proposals, including details about the deployment of missile defenses in Europe and limits on military exercises.
She said the U.S. proposals must be reciprocal and rejected Russian calls for a reduction in U.S. troop levels in Eastern Europe, saying that issue was "not on the agenda" on January 10.
For his part, Ryabkov said he had assured Sherman that U.S. and NATO concerns about Russia's military buildup on its border with Ukraine are unfounded.
"We explained to our colleagues that we have no plans, no intentions, to 'attack' Ukraine.... There is no reason to fear any escalation in this regard," Ryabkov told reporters after the talks.
Ryabkov also said the United States "took Russian proposals very seriously" and that Moscow was "for the continuation of dialogue."
But Ryabkov also said after the meeting that "no progress" had been made on Moscow's demand that Ukraine not be allowed to join the NATO alliance. He insisted that future progress in talks with U.S. diplomats depends on this issue.
Sherman said Washington will "not allow anyone to slam closed NATO's open-door policy," which she said was "central to the alliance."
"We will not forego bilateral cooperation with sovereign states that wish to work with United States," Sherman said. "And we will not make decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine, about Europe without Europe, or about NATO without NATO. As we say to our allies and partners: 'Nothing about you, without you'."
Sherman said Washington offered to meet again "soon" with Russia to discuss the issues in more detail.
The talks come amid a standoff over the Russian military buildup near Ukraine's border. The West fears it could signal Moscow is preparing an invasion of Ukraine. Russia seized and forcibly annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014. It also has backed separatists who've been battling government forces in eastern Ukraine since 2014.
Before the official start of talks, Sherman and Ryabkov met for a working dinner on January 9 in Geneva.
The bilateral talks in Geneva will be followed by a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels on January 12 and separate multilateral talks under the framework of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna on January 13.
The U.S. State Department said ahead of the January 10 meeting that the United States “will not discuss European security without our European allies and partners,” in a reference to Russia’s demands from the United States and NATO for security guarantees.
"The deputy secretary underscored that discussion of certain subjects would be reserved for the NATO-Russia Council meeting in Brussels on January 12 and the OSCE Permanent Council meeting in Vienna on January 13," the State Department said.
Sherman "stressed the United States' commitment to the international principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the freedom of sovereign nations to choose their own alliances," the statement said, in a reference to Ukraine and its aspirations of joining NATO.
Sherman "affirmed that the United States would welcome genuine progress through diplomacy," it added.
Ryabkov told reporters ahead of the January 10 meeting that he expected the talks would be “difficult.”
U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held two phone calls in December, accompanied by a flurry of diplomacy involving officials from the United States, its European allies and Ukraine, and Russia that culminates in the three meetings this week.
Putin has issued a series of demands, including guarantees that NATO will not further expand eastward to former Soviet states like Ukraine and Georgia. The Kremlin also wants the alliance to roll back troop and weapons deployments in Eastern Europe.
Ahead of the talks in Geneva, Ryabkov laid out Russia's three demands: no further NATO expansion, no missiles on Russia's borders, and for NATO no longer to have military exercises, intelligence operations, or infrastructure outside of its 1997 borders.
"The Russian side came here with a clear position that contains a number of elements that, to my mind, are understandable and have been so clearly formulated -- including at a high level -- that deviating from our approaches simply is not possible," Ryabkov said.
U.S. officials have said some Russian demands are nonstarters, while others are open to discussion.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that talks with Moscow would not make progress as long as Russia -- which has amassed almost 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine -- has a "gun to Ukraine's head."
"There's a path of dialogue and diplomacy to try to resolve some of these differences and avoid a confrontation," Blinken told CNN on January 9.
"The other path is confrontation and massive consequences for Russia if it renews its aggression on Ukraine. We are about to test the proposition about which path President Putin is prepared to take."
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who will meet with the Russian delegation on January 12 in Brussels, warned Moscow of "severe costs" in case of an invasion of Ukraine, but added that Russia and the West could find a pathway to avoid conflict.
"We also need to send a very clear message to Russia, that we are united and that there will be severe costs -- economic, political costs -- for Russia if they once again use military force against Ukraine," Stoltenberg said at a news conference in Brussels with Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna.
"What we are hoping for is that we can agree on a way forward, that we can agree on a series of meetings, that we can agree on a process," he said.